Detail from Joe Sacco's "The Great War"

The bloody battles of World War I have been memorialized in classics such as “All Quiet On the Western Front” and through the verse of poets like Wilfred Owen. Now, cartoonist Joe Sacco revisits those trenches with his newest work, “The Great War,” a 24-foot long drawing depicting the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, called the bloodiest 24 hours in the history of the British military. Joe Sacco and journalist and historian Adam Hochschild join us to discuss the art and impact of The Great War.

The Great War by Joe Sacco from WW Norton on Vimeo.

Joe Sacco, cartoonist, journalist and illustrator of "The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme"; his other books include "Palestine" and "Footnotes in Gaza"
Adam Hochschild, journalist and author of "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion: 1914-1918"; he also wrote the introduction to "The Great War"

  • thucy

    I’m a big Sacco fan (The Fixer is brilliant, and I learned a lot from his book on the Palestinians), but as he’s usually schooling us American readers on stuff that isn’t covered in U.S. schools, I really wish he’d take on the Soviet experience during WWII.

    US suffered approx. 500,000 casualties, almost entirely military. Soviets suffered 7 million military casualties and 20 million civilian casualties. Stalingrad, Leningrad… how do you illustrate that???

    Probably the only guy who could have taken on that topic was the late Harvey Kurtzman. His “Frontline Combat” comics series were brilliant and subversive in their refusal to glamorize war, and in their often sympathetic depiction of opponents. Jacques Tardi’s “It Was The War of the Trenches” also comes to mind – this new work by Sacco looks a bit like it.

  • geraldfnord

    Though I’ve learned more disturbing things about German militarism before the Great War than I had known before, including some proto-Nazi leanings of a fraction of the Lutheran church (basically: God made each race for a purpose, the German race’s purpose was to rule), but I’m also a bit disturbed by the historians I’ve read and heard who claim that we’ve got far too negative a view of the War to End War…I’m not buying it, and if the previous century were a particularly brutal one (and it was), I think a lot of it was due to the brutalisation endured or even just known-about in the ’14-’18 war and attendant fighting*—not just mass death, but mass suffering in the mud for years.

    And, biased though I am in believing it, probably, there’s a lot I like about Western culture post-Enlightenment, and the Great War made it ‘lose its nerve’. This was not entirely a bad thing—it took a lot of nerve to decide that we had it all so right that it were only right and natural that we rule the rest of the world, and we were better-off without that delusion—but some seemed to go from absolute and blind faith in the rightness of the liberal (in the broadest sense) state to absolute rejection of it.

    *If you have a free afternoon, go through Wikipedia’s numerous articles on all the post-Empire pre-Soviet states, e.g. when the madman who styled himself ‘Roman von Ungern-Sternberg’, an Estonian German knight under the Tsar, became ruler of Mongolia.

  • Bob Fry

    Most pilots know the inspiring, but somewhat saccharin, “High Flight” poem from WWII. But I like this more cynical and melancholy WWI poem:

    An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

    I know that I shall meet my fate
    Somewhere among the clouds above;
    Those that I fight I do not hate,
    Those that I guard I do not love;
    My country is Kiltartan Cross,
    My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
    No likely end could bring them loss
    Or leave them happier than before.
    Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
    Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
    A lonely impulse of delight
    Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
    I balanced all, brought all to mind,
    The years to come seemed waste of breath,
    A waste of breath the years behind
    In balance with this life, this death.

    William Butler Yeats

  • trite

    Have you read any of the novels by Pat Barker about WWI? She gives very vivid accounts of action.

  • TimDoyle

    A great reference book is “War Letters of Fallen Englishmen” edited by Laurence Houseman brother of A.E. Houseman. These letters show how idealistic, naive and well educated the British soldiers were at that time.

  • trite

    Do you know the Paul Nash paintings?

  • geraldfnord

    So, basically, the massive deaths of (undeserving) Europeans can be laid to their leaders’ complete lack of sympathy with their subject peoples. Much like Pearl Harbor, which was partially a result of underestimation of the Japanese as a people who never came up with novel ideas, it serves as an example of how deadly racism can be to the racist.


  • Fay Nissenbaum

    Any comments on mustard gas ? And wasnt WWI the first time PTSD was spoken about – as “shell shock”?

    • Fiona

      Yes, Fay, WWI was the first time PTSD was labeled as shell shock. It was difficult for British doctors/the government to deal with and even name the phenomenon, though cases of PTSD (not labeled or recognized as being this disorder or as shell shock) were known prior to WWI.

    • Realistdem

      on PTSD: it is something of a myth that “shell shock” is the precursor to PTSD.

      all the belligerents on the western front had some kind of word that described whatever “shell shock” was. the french, for instance, called it obusité (which is something like “shell-sickness”). however, as of late 1915 or so, the british army stopped using the term “shell shock” in any official way.its medical service found that once the term gained currency, many soldiers claimed to be “shell-shocked” to get out of service. they used the terms “concussion” and “nervous exhaustion” instead. and strangely, the incidence of shell shock was higher among soldiers who never saw battle than among those who did.

      PTSD as we talk about it today is something rather different than shell shock in the 1914 meaning of the term. shell shock initially referred to supposed organic damage to the nervous system caused by the pressure waves of a shell explosion. it was, in other words, an acute injury sustained on the battlefield. in this respect, it is much more like today’s category of TBI.

      PTSD, as we think about it today, is the result of chronic stress. in wwII, american doctors came up with the term “combat fatigue” to describe the results of prolonged battlefield stress stress. this was, i think, the first time that PTSD was actually identified and diagnosed. combat fatigue is much more like PTSD.

      two really good books on this are moran’s anatomy of courage and ben shepherd’s a war of nerves.

  • Fiona

    Consider Vera Brittain’s detailed account of her war experience as a nurse, sister, friend, and fiancee during WWI, in “Testament of Youth.” This work exemplifies a not-uncommon WWI memoirist’s (Robert Graves and Siegfried Sasson being notable peers of Brittain’s) struggle to restore and to represent a sense of selfhood after the unspeakable traumas of war.

    Thank you for this wonderful program, KQED!

    My WWI history blog:

  • James R

    Why did the artillery barrage prior to the start of the Somme fail.

    • Realistdem

      it failed for two main reasons:

      1. most of the shells sent into the german positions thrown from medium caliber guns and did not have the explosive power to destroy entrenched and fortified german positions.

      2. too few shells were send over. since the shells could not be directly aimed on german positions with any accuracy, the barrage relied on a kind of probabilistic calculus. british and french planners assumed that if they fired many, many shells, they would probably hit the majority of the german defensive positions. the density of the barrage would assure its efficacy. but the number of shells fired was actually much too few. keegan’s the face of battle has a great section on this.

  • nora levine

    I recommend Thomas Keneally’s new novel, Daughters of Mars. Early WWI from the perspective of Australian nurses who volunteer for service on a hospital ship and on the front lines. Very haunting.

  • Torgeir Hansson

    ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’

    The darkness crumbles away
    It is the same old druid Time as ever,
    Only a live thing leaps my hand,
    A queer sardonic rat,
    As I pull the parapet’s poppy
    To stick behind my ear.
    Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
    Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
    Now you have touched this English hand
    You will do the same to a German
    Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
    To cross the sleeping green between.
    It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
    Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
    Less chanced than you for life,
    Bonds to the whims of murder,
    Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
    The torn fields of France.
    What do you see in our eyes
    At the shrieking iron and flame
    Hurled through still heavens?
    What quaver -what heart aghast?
    Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
    Drop, and are ever dropping;
    But mine in my ear is safe,
    Just a little white with the dust.

    Maybe the best poem of WWI, by Isaac Rosenberg.

  • Torgeir Hansson

    No one should miss “The Rites Of Spring,” by Modris Eckstein (sp?) It is a great history of the period, with a focus on WWI of course.

  • Torgeir Hansson

    Neither should anyone miss “Storm Of Steel,” by Ernst Junger.

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